By the Mountain Bound is the second book in Elizabeth Bear’s The Edda of Burdens series. It is set before the events of All the Windracked Stars (post) so you could read them in either order, but I think it works best as I’ve done it this time (tho obviously as this is my first read of this book I haven’t tried out the other way round yet!).
The three protagonists of the story are the Wolf (Mingan), the Historian (Muire) and the Warrior (Strifbjorn) – the same three as in All the Windracked Stars, although Strifbjorn is reborn as the mortal Cathoair in that book. Muire was central in the first book, this book is the Wolf’s. Strifbjorn and Muire are both immortal Children of the Light, waelcyrge. (Immortal in the un-ageing sense – they can still be killed, for instance in battle.) The Wolf is … not quite the same as them, he is also a survivor from the world before there’s, and was already there when the Children first came into being. When the story opens superficially all is well in the world – we see where the cracks are but there’s nothing threatening about them. The opening chapters establish the world with a wedding between two waelcyrge, where we learn (amongst other things) that Strifbjorn is their war leader and they have no Cynge and no Lady despite setting chairs out for both. Into this good-enough world comes Heythe, who quickly establishes herself as the Lady returned. All is, of course, not quite what it seems and Heythe is soon manipulating the warlcyrge into their seemingly inevitable slide towards apocalypse.
The waelcyrge are not just warriors and avengers of mortals, they are also beings with loves of their own. And this story is also about loving unwisely or too well, and the consequences of that. When waelcyrge marry they share a part of their soul with their spouse via a kiss, but of course you don’t have to be married to kiss the one you love. Yet social pressure keeps most from risking such a thing pre-marriage – after all, if something changes and then you marry someone else then that someone else will discover they are sharing their soul not just with their spouse but their spouse’s previous lover. It’s the idea of pre-marital sex “tainting” those who do it, but applied rather more even-handedly. It’s clear that this attitude is to be seen as one of the flaws of waelcyrge society which Heythe exploits rather than a good thing. Waelcyrge are not terribly fertile, so marrying and having children to replace those who die are exalted to an almost sacred duty – Strifbjorn as war leader is under a lot of pressure to do so to set a good example. And there is no shortage of waelcyrge women who would marry him – some, like Muire, because they are in love with him, some because of the prestige being his wife would bring them. But unknown to the other waelcyrge Strifbjorn and Mingan are not just lovers, but have shared the kiss. And so the world of the waelcyrge is not as robust as it looks on the surface.
This book is a tragedy, not just in the modern sense of ending with dead people but in the original Greek sense too – it’s the inevitable working out of the flaws of the characters & society. The reason I think the ordering of these books works best this way round is that right from the beginning of this book you know where it ends. It ends with the end of the world, in blood and in ice. With Muire, the Wolf and Kasimir the only survivors of an apocalyptic battle pitting waelcyrge against waelcyrge and killing nearly all of them. So even the moments of hope and partial triumph are against a backdrop of watching the world end. It’s not depressing though – in part because for all the world ends in that battle, we also know from the first book that it’s not totally over and that there is yet hope.
In a nice touch this book ends almost exactly where the first one begins. We see some of the same scenes (not word for word, I think, but close enough to resonate), interspersed (and followed) with new information. But the repeated scenes have completely different emotional weight this time. At the beginning of the first book it’s just back story & characterisation – ticking little boxes for who these people are: “Muire, waelcyrge, survivor’s guilt” etc. This time tho, these are people we know and have come to care about over the course of the book and watching them die is heartbreakingly poignant (yet tragically inevitable).
Thoroughly recommended, and at time of writing I’m halfway through the next one & trying to make it last so that my time in this world with these characters won’t be over so soon.